Peter Strickland has made his reputation among arthouse genre fans largely on the back of his wild pastiches, with 2012's Berberian Sound Studio and 2014's The Duke of Burgundy both drawing extensively from the look and texture of European grindhouse pictures of the '70s (Italian horror in the former case, French softcore in the latter). But for all his tender, loving attention to style, both of those films were psychological studies at heart. This matters because with his fourth feature In Fabric, he has, at least for the moment, abandoned that somewhat; this is much closer to being the style-for-style's-sake exercise that his earlier films only appeared to be. And when somebody as stylistically-inclined as Strickland indulges in a full-on exercise in style, the results are so extravagantly wild that it's almost hard to quantify it.

This isn't obviously the case at first. One of the many ways that this is a '70s homage is that it is, basically, a horror anthology. And as we all know who know the first thing about '70s horror anthologies, they always have one segment that's weaker than the rest. In Fabric only has two segments in total, which reduces its hit rate precipitously, but the first one (stretching a good bit more than halfway through the 118-minute film) is a pretty damn terrific story that, much like Strickland's earlier work, splits the difference between genre pastiche and psychothriller. It focuses on Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a woman in her 50s whose life is functional and not much more. She has a tedious job at a bank, and she lives with her adult son Vince (Jaygann Ayah), who doesn't seem to do anything but paint and fuck his snobbish, awful girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie). With nothing to lose, she decides to start going on dates through classified ads, and to make herself feel better about the process she goes to an after-Christmas sale at Dentley & Soper's, a department store she saw advertised on TV.

Why anybody would go to Dentley & Soper's based on that ad is an open question: it features horrifying abstract images of mannequins spinning endlessly in angry circles, the store's staff making elaborate "come hither" gestures that make them look exactly like members of a witch cult, and it is shot in stuttering, noisy video that looks like it will kill you seven days after you watch it. But part of the fun of the thing is what happens when Sheila arrives at the store to talk with saleswoman Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), who speaks in complicated, roundabout sentences that feel like she learned both English syntax and vocabulary from books - they're technically correct, but unfathomably alien ("Dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements" is her explanation for why Sheila can unexpectedly fit into a size 36 dress). And Mohamed delivers them with a rocking, poetic rhythm that feels like a chant. Sheila does not in any way react to this, but simply continues talking to Miss Luckmoore with the flat, naturalistic dialogue and accent befitting an actor who came to international prominence in a Mike Leigh film.

It's about this time that In Fabric clearly marks itself out as a comedy, albeit an extremely deadpan one. The film will, in due course, turn out to be about a haunted red dress that ruins the life of anybody who wears it, as part of the Dentley & Soper's coven's rituals, and Strickland understands completely that this is ridiculous. He leans into it: the dress scrapes itself around doors and floats above sleeping people and any number of other spooky things that are presented with a distinct whiff of the ludicrous, alongside everything else that's given the same treatment: Luckmoore's way of speaking, but also the bank bureaucrats Stash (Julian Barratt) and Clive (Steve Oram), who without being apparently connected to a paranormal cult, still fall into convoluted, inhuman speech patterns. For not only is In Fabric a deadpan comedy, it's a deadpan satire, cheerfully mocking the rituals of retail consumption while also poking fun at any other topic that crosses its mind. Stash and Clive are there to serve as the butt of jokes about feckless, bloodless HR managers, and in honesty, I cannot see why it makes sense to bring them into a story about getting brainwashed by a good clearance sale. And yet it does, somehow, while you're watching it.

The loopy comic tone and Jean-Baptiste's extremely welcome presence are enough to make the first 70 minutes of In Fabric work right on par with anything a Strickland fan might hope for; it's never as rich and emotionally evocative as The Duke of Burgundy, but it has its own wonderful way of combining character drama and warped genre pleasures. The second plot will eventually get back to this point, but it takes a fairly drab 25 minutes or so to get there: the story of pathetic washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) and his fiancé Babs (Hayley Squires), who also come into contact with the haunted dress, and also have their lives destroyed by it, simply doesn't click the way that Sheila's story does, and while Bill isn't a bad actor, he doesn't have a tenth of Jean-Baptiste's screen presence.

Not to say that In Fabric doesn't work through all of this. After all, I talked about it as an exercise in pure style, and here I've barely talked about style at all. It is egregious and mesmerising, starting right from its opening credits - the best in Strickland's filmography, and his films are noteworthy for the extremely high quality of his opening credits sequence. In this case, it's a series of still images from the film to come, focusing on the uncanny and the violent and the threatening, paired with the amazing score by Berlin-based experimental rock trio Cavern of Anti-Matter, which sounds sort of like horror-themed techno music played on a harpsichord. And that is itself layered atop a bed of illegible babbling, the sound of shoppers anonymously milling around in the store. As with every Strickland film, In Fabric will turn out to have a fantastic soundtrack, in part because of the way it keeps using this same wild sound of crowds to suggest the inside of the store in a pointedly artificial, hollow way. The soundtrack is very much a collage of noises, all of which feel separate from each other, and all of which cumulatively make it feel uncanny and unreal and empty, indicating a realistic soundscape without actually arriving at one. In a film that is mostly dreamlike and haunted, there's nothing that more perfectly evokes the half-formed presence of a dream than the sounds.

But the visuals do a pretty good job, too. Cinematographer Ari Wegner is trying to recapture the undersaturated, brown-skewed look of a '70s film, but that's just where the imagery starts, not where it ends up. Much like the soundtrack, the images consist of isolated chunks of recognisable horror pieced together as collages - sometimes explicitly so, as in two different montage sequences made out of stills. In one especially striking scene, the collage happens inside a single composition, as there are three different pieces of footage of Sheila standing in front of a three-way mirror, moving at different rates, fading in next to each other so that we can see them as separate visual elements while also feeling like this is what's actually going on in the mirror. It is a sublimely weird, uncanny thing, maybe the best pure surrealist horror imagery of Strickland's career - as good as any surreal horror from anywhere in the 2010s, for that matter. There's plenty of surrealism to go around, though. Every last scene and composition with the department store staff is bizarre either because of the framing, which exaggerated 90-degree angles and makes everything feel mechanical and austere, or the content, which includes plenty of creepy mannequins and creepy humans looking like mannequins. Or, in a delightfully outlandish scene of freakish inhuman sexuality, a creepy human sadly and seriously masturbating to a mannequin bleeding red paint out of its plaster vagina.

So, y'know, that kind of movie. I suspect rather strongly that this adds up to the least of Strickland's films that I've seen, but it is thrilling to collect all the parts along the way. Horror and sex and consumerism and family-building are all swirled together in a blender and mixed with hallucinatory bright colors, and the results are a striking nightmare of how we scramble through a life full of loneliness and alienation, done as pure sensory overload. It's the most garish, Baroque film of this garish, Baroque director's career - I leave it to the reader to decide if that's for better or for worse.